Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

How Complete an Overthrow: Religious Conversion and National Character in Some Nineteenth Century Novels of Ancient Britain

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

How Complete an Overthrow: Religious Conversion and National Character in Some Nineteenth Century Novels of Ancient Britain

Article excerpt

In 1863 Charles Kingsley wrote, "Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be."1 John Henry Newman, famously, responded with the Apobgia pm vita sua in which, after the majestic narrative of the process leading to his conversion, he turned to the particulars of Kingsley's accusation.

There are a number of issues at stake in this exchange. The immediate question was whether Newman's word could be trusted. Newman asserted, vigorously, that it could. "I scorn and detest lying," he insisted, "and quibbling, and double-tongued practice, and slyness, and cunning, and smoothness, and cant, and pretence, quite as much as any Protestants hate them."2

Behind this issue lies another one: the question of whether one can owe allegiance to the Church of Rome, and still possess the character and loyalties proper to a subject of the English crown. The kind of national anxieties about loyalty that go back to the English reformation, and are embodied, for instance, in the story of Guy Fawkes, received fresh energy in the nineteenth century from Newman's secession and the wave of conversions that followed it, and still more in the aftermath of the "Papal Aggression" of 1850 in which the Vatican re-established the Catholic hierarchy in England. In 1851 the prime minister wrote to the bishop of Durham that "the liberty of Protestantism has been enjoyed in England too long to allow of any successful attempt to impose a foreign yoke upon our minds and consciences."3 Kingsley's distrust of Newman's character was part of this broader concern about a fundamental incompatibility between Englishness and Catholicism.

Newman also directly addressed this broader issue. His dedication to the Church of Rome, he insisted, was unqualified: since his conversion he "had no anxiety of heart whatever . . never have had one doubt."4 To be Catholic, however, was not to trade in some essential Englishness for an essential foreignness: his word and his character were still entirely those of an Englishman. "Much as I admire the high points of the Italian character," he wrote, "I like the English rule of conduct better."5 Moreover, he insisted that this combination of dogged allegiance both to the Church of Rome, and to the character of England was characteristic not just of him but of English Catholics at large: he wrote that on his conversion he was particularly struck by the "English out-spoken manner of the priests," among whom

there was nothing of that smoothness, or mannerism, which is commonly imputed to them, and they were more natural and unaffected than many an Anglican clergyman. The many years, which have passed since, have only confirmed my first impression. I have ever found it in the priests of this Diocese; did I wish to point out a straightforward Englishman, I should instance the Bishop, who has, to our great benefit, for so many years presided over it.6

Englishness, he insisted in the face of popular suspicion and hostility, was perfectly compatible with Catholicism.

Beneath both of these questions lies a third, broader one, concerning the relationship between religious allegiance and national character: a question which was further entangled with the pervasive Victorian concern with origins. The century's great narrative historians were deeply interested in the implications of English history and origins for the self-understanding of contemporary Englishmen and were ardent in their insistence that Englishness was synonymous with Anglo-Saxonness. John Richard Green wrote that "for the fatherland of the English race we must look far away from England itself."7 William Stubbs asked "who were our forefathers, whence did they come, what did they bring with them?" and answered that "the English are not aboriginal."8 Edward Augustus Freeman repeatedly describes the Angles and Saxons as "our own forefathers,"9 and applauded the savagery with which the heathen invaders slaughtered the native inhabitants, because it secured the purity of the Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural heritage: "The English were thus able to grow up as a nation in England, and their laws, manners and language grew up with them and were not copied from those of other nations. …

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